The big higher ed news in the UK press today is the recommendation by UCAS that universities should only offer places to students once they have their A-level results. For my international readers – UCAS is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, whose job it is to centrally process applications from secondary school students and manage the overall university application procedure. In general, they do a very good job of making a complicated system run smoothly – they deal with the early deadline applicants for Oxbridge and then keep on going until the clearing process in the summer after the A-level results come out. So when they say that they have a suggestion about how the system might work better, you can be sure that it’s probably based on experience. (I should note that this plan would have to work out how to incorporate results from other exams like the Scottish Highers and the International Baccalaureate, but the UCAS suggestions currently focus on A-levels, so I will as well.)
Their suggestion is that instead of putting applications in from about October onward, depending on the early deadlines, students should take their A-levels and then put their applications in, using actual rather than predicted grades. This is because predicted grades are not particularly accurate, with students both under- and over-performing the predictions, meaning that they either didn’t apply to universities their grades would have got them into or that they don’t meet their offers and have to either go for their second choice or, if something’s gone seriously wrong, look for an alternative course in clearing . The UCAS plans would mean moving A-levels a bit earlier, to give time for the interview and application process, so that the universities wouldn’t have to completely rearrange their term dates; when I say a bit earlier, the BBC article is suggesting two weeks earlier.
Now, there are a number of obvious pluses to this plan, of which access is a major one – students can see their grades and make more accurate calculations about which sort of university they can apply to, rather than be cautious and go for one they know will give them a low offer because they lack confidence in their own academic abilities. It also puts students in the position to make a more informed choice, since they will have finished two years of an A-level course rather than just one, and thus have had the chance to think over the question of what they want to specialise in at university a little more thoroughly than the current system allows. (The current system is fine for those, like me, who have no doubt that they want to go to university and know which subject they’re going to do; it’s less good for those who are more conflicted over the choice, for whatever reason, to have to make a binding decision about university courses nearly a year before the A-level exams.)
There are issues with shifting the application schedule, not least of all the fact that the process will be long, complex and expensive. I also wonder about the psychological effect on students. It won’t be as bad as the stories I have heard from American secondary schools, where students apply and get accepted in the autumn of their final year, and essentially view their last term as an opportunity to wind down and relax since by that point they have taken the SATs, the offer is in the bag and there are no A-level equivalents to face at the end of the year. Under the proposed system, English students would still have the goal of getting the grades they would know they needed to apply to their university of choice – there would be no time for resting on one’s academic laurels, as it were. The comments on the BBC website are also already full of people working at the cliff face of admissions, pointing out that all of the administrative work that needs to be done to get a new student into the system would also have to be compressed into a much smaller (arguably impossibly small) space of time.
I also have a personal reason for looking at this suggestion slightly askance. I applied to Cambridge on the strength of a prediction of AAA. In the end, I got AAB (something went horribly wrong with Government and Politics, don’t ask). However, as I was already in the Cambridge ‘system’, I got put into the pool of unsuccessful applicants (kind of an in-house university clearing system) and was lucky enough to be pulled out by Newnham – where I went on to spend four wonderful years, without which I sincerely doubt I would have a Ph.D. and be working my way into an academic career. The current system can work for those with potential who get unlucky on exam day, which the new proposals don’t account for.
That said, I still think there is a case to be made for considering whether we can shift around the system so that applicants only formally apply when they have grades in hand. The real driver for this will have to be the access argument – if a solid case can be made that by rearranging the system, more undergraduates from less privileged backgrounds will have access to the institutions appropriate to their intellectual potential, then it seems that there’s a case for taking a good hard look at whether the administrative arrangements can be rearranged to keep up as well (without anyone having to suffer a month of intensive overtime). It’s a good point, and I’m going to watch the debate proceed with cautious interest.